LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Unhappy with your property tax bill? It could get much worse, Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield warned.
During a public hearing on a tax hike Thursday night, Whitfield told residents he will no longer fight a debt owed to Erlanger Health System. In 2011, former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell guaranteed half a loan from the hospital on behalf of Hutcheson Medical Center.
Erlanger has pursued that money in federal court for the last 20 months. Under Heiskell, the county fought the bill with a couple different legal arguments, essentially saying the contract she originally signed was not valid. But a U.S. District Court judge rejected those arguments last year. And on July 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals did the same.
Last month, Whitfield considered fighting the order further, filing yet another appeal. But now, he has surrendered.
"We're not going to throw good money after bad," he said.
2015: $12 million
2016: $11.5 million
2017: $14 million
Whitfield said he met with Erlanger Health System CEO Kevin Spiegel three times. He hoped for a lenient payment plan, but he is no longer optimistic. He said hospital administrators have told him in writing that Erlanger will pursue enforcement actions soon if Whitfield and Spiegel do not reach an agreement.
The court order says Walker County owes $8.7 million, but that does not include interest. Whitfield said the debt really "is approaching $10 million, and growing daily." He believes the county could face bills of $1 million every three months until he pays back the debt. As part of the 2011 contract that Heiskell signed, Whitfield said, Erlanger could force the county to levy up to 7 mills of extra property tax to squeeze out the money.
"What you're paying in county taxes [would] almost double," Whitfield said.
As it stands, the commissioner has proposed a 22-percent increase on the county portion of your bill. (Factoring in the decrease in Walker County Schools' taxes, the average overall bill would actually only go up 7.3 percent.)
Whitfield believes he will take in about $22.7 million in revenue this year, and he is trying to talk department heads into cutting a total of $5 million off their proposed budgets for this next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. His figures do not include any money set aside to pay Erlanger.
During the meeting, some residents proposed adding an extra fee to county bills, aimed at tackling the debt to Erlanger. Whitfield said he is open to the idea, though he doesn't know exactly what that would look like. Perhaps every homeowner would pay a flat fee for the next couple years. Maybe he would require business owners to do that, too.
Whitfield proposed a couple other increases in revenue Thursday. He is changing the county's public safety fee, from a flat annual amount of $130 per homeowner to a rate based on the size of your house. The county will charge 10 cents per square foot, with a minimum fee of $90 and a maximum fee of $400.
Overall, the county will take in $3.7 million from the fee, a 25 percent increase over the money brought in from the fee this year.
Whitfield also pitched a sales tax for transportation projects. He will put a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot, asking voters to add a 1-percent tax at the cash register, with money shared among the county and the cities. Whitfield projects this could add $2.25 million to the county coffers.
Some residents were unhappy with the latest hits to their wallets.
"A lot of people are on fixed incomes," said Lowell Cantrell, of Rock Spring. "It's going to put the hurt on a lot of people."
"This is what we inherited," said Whitfield, who took office Jan. 1.
"I know," Cantrell said.
Added Lynn King, of LaFayette: "I know we got to do something, and I appreciate everything you're doing. But I don't think the burden should be on all the property owners."
As of Sept. 1, 2016, Whitfield said, the county audit shows the local government has a net position of $7 million in the hole. That is a $22 million turnaround from 2010, when county records showed it had a positive position of $15 million.
"We're going to have to work hard on our debt," Whitfield said. "And we're going to have to look for other funding sources. We're going to have to find more creative ways."
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.